Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
The common cold is arguably the most common illness in humans. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is also one of the most common causes of work and school absenteeism, with up to 22 million school days lost each year in the U.S. Colds are caused by viral infections. Over 200 different viruses can cause cold symptoms of varying severity.
Viruses that cause colds are spread from person to person through tiny droplets of mucus that enter the air from the nasal passages of infected persons and are inhaled by others. Colds can also be spread by touching surfaces that have been contaminated by contact with infected persons and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.
While it is impossible to completely prevent the spread of colds, there are steps you can take to reduce your and your family's chances of becoming infected with a virus that causes colds:
- Wash your hands often. This is probably the single best measure to prevent transmission of colds. Especially after shopping, going to the gym, or spending time in public places, hand washing is critical. Frequent hand washing can destroy viruses that you have acquired from touching surfaces used by other people. You can also carry a small tube of hand sanitizer or sanitizing hand wipes when visiting public places. Teach your children the importance of hand washing too.
- Avoid touching your face, especially the nose, mouth, and eye areas, if you are around someone with a cold or have been touching surfaces in a public area.
- Don't smoke. Cigarette smoke can irritate the airways and increase susceptibility to colds and other infections. Even exposure to passive smoke can make you (or your children) more vulnerable to colds.
- Use disposable items if someone in your family is infected. Disposable cups can be thrown away after each use and prevent accidental spread of the virus from sharing of cups or glasses. This is particularly important if you have young children who may try to drink from others' cups.
- Keep household surfaces clean. Door knobs, drawer pulls, keyboards, light switches, telephones, remote controls, countertops, and sinks can all harbor viruses for hours after their use by an infected person. Wipe these surfaces frequently with soap and water or a disinfectant solution.
- If your child has a cold, wash his or her toys as well when you are cleaning household surfaces and commonly-used items.
- Use paper towels in the kitchen and bathroom for hand washing. Germs can live for several hours on cloth towels. Alternatively, have separate towels for each family member and provide a clean one for guests.
- Throw tissues away after use. Used tissues are sources of virus that can contaminate any surface where they are left.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle. While there isn't direct evidence to show that eating well or exercising can prevent colds, maintenance of a healthy lifestyle, with adequate sleep, good nutrition and physical exercise can help ensure that your immune system is in good condition and ready to fight infection if it occurs.
- Control stress. Studies have shown that people experiencing emotional stress have weakened immune systems and are more likely to catch a cold than their calmer counterparts.